Dr. Fraser- Point of View
January 8, 2010
The challenges of Education

At this time of year, following the Christmas and New Year activities, the nation’s attention is being refocused on Education. One gets the impression that parents and students are beginning to fully appreciate the fact that in today’s highly competitive and globalised world, Education is the passport to the future. One can see this particularly in the attitudes of parents at the time of the Common Entrance examination.{{more}} Some parents literally camp outside of the venues where their children are writing the Common Entrance exam, ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that their children are given the moral support they need. It is to many parents the one chance for their children. It was not too long ago that persons entering the nursing, teaching and police professions needed only a Primary School leaving certificate. Today, while CXC and GCE certificates are basic requirements, increasingly undergraduate degrees are becoming a necessity. With the movement toward a Caribbean Single Market and Economy, the competition for scarce jobs will increase as graduates from throughout the single economic space are able to seek employment throughout the region without having to get work permits. Clearly, employers are going to be influenced by much more than one’s nationality. Already we see that trades people in the technical and vocational areas have begun moving to areas experiencing construction booms and tourist expansion schemes. Significant numbers of our trades’ people, although excellent with their craft, are not professionally trained. While in country they could point to the work they had done, this will certainly not work when one travels overseas, so certification is now very much in demand and efforts are being made to deal with this issue at the level of Caricom.

One of the legacies of colonialism and slavery is that parents still force their children into what they consider the academic streams. In fact, although there have been changes in this area, there is still the belief that those with better CXC or GCE level passes should move into the Division of Arts, Sciences and General Studies of the Community College, while those who did not perform as well are slated to the Technical Division. But we live in a different, more complex world today, where work in the technical and vocational areas demands some of our brightest sons and daughters, our brightest minds. What still exists, however, is a preference for white collar jobs, even in situations where salaries might not be as remunerative as in the technical areas. One of our shortcomings, too, is in planning. To what extent do we try to determine what kind of society we are likely to or would like to have in say the next ten years? This, of course, is absolutely necessary since this will influence how we train our people and what we set as national priorities. This is not to say that progress is not being made. But the question still remains, are we preparing our people to meet this nation’s development needs and to cater to the type of society that will emerge in the near future? Certainly, more of our people are entering Universities and other institutions of tertiary education. But what influences the kind of training they undertake? Are we producing people for export or are we preparing people to meet our developmental needs? Education is an investment both at the individual and national level, and we are constantly being reminded as we follow developments in the outside world that we are moving into a knowledge based society. But what are the dimensions of this knowledge society? What does it involve? Are we really moving in that direction?

At another level, the University of the West Indies Open Campus, which was an initiative that emerged from the University’s 2007-2012 Strategic Plan, was launched in 2008, the 60th year of the establishment of the University. The main objective was to better meet the needs of the UWI 12 countries (that is, countries that had no campuses) and also of the underserved areas in countries that had the traditional mortar and brick campuses. The Open Campus hopes to be informed by the needs of the countries it serves and to develop programmes to meet those needs. In doing this they have to be in partnership with governments and the private sector and to inform and be informed by national priorities. Indigenous education institutions in the Caribbean today face competition from off-shore education institutions. While they should not shy away from this competition, a basic fact needs to be told. In many, if not the majority of cases, some of these off-shore institutions are simply money- making ventures that admittedly provide education for Caribbean people but are not necessarily attuned to or concerned about Caribbean development and national priorities, except in so far as they are able to use these for profit making purposes.

The UWI Open Campus is the new kid on the block. Up to a few years ago, persons seeking higher education had to travel either to one of the campuses of UWI, or to other institutions in the region or overseas or to do courses at home from some foreign institution. Today it is possible to do full degrees in the areas of Education and Management Studies, to do two years of a three year Accounting programme (hopefully the full programme will soon be available). There are also a variety of Diploma, Certificate and Associate Degree programmes and Graduate programmes in some of the areas of Education. New programmes at all levels are being worked on, based on an evaluation of the needs of particular countries and the region generally. It has been capitalising on the available technology to reach students through multimode teaching- face to face, through teleconferences and on-line modes. The reach is far and wide and has even begun to attract Caribbean people in the Diaspora.

There are challenges, of course. Students coming from traditional face to face modes with the traditional chalk and blackboard approach have to face a situation where they are expected to take responsibility for their own learning and to make adjustments to the technology. Access to a computer is critical to all students seeking tertiary level education. The on-line learning environment is of particular importance to persons with work and family commitments, and allows for organisation of one’s own learning time. So there is a lot that is new and we exist now in an environment where education is literally from the cradle to the grave. The school is now everywhere as learning takes place everywhere. New things are happening every day and in fact, every minute of the day and graduates of any institution of learning can no longer rest on their laurels since they could become completely out of touch and outdated. Thus the concept of learning being from the cradle to the grave assumes enormous importance. Educational institutions will have to be informed by all of this and cater to the demands that arise from this. Certainly, this is the context which is influencing the direction in which the UWI Open Campus is moving. Of course, the Open Campus is only one of the campuses of the University and is influenced by the direction in which the University wants to move, and in giving priority to serving the needs of those countries which felt that they had been underserved in the past. The challenges are many, and so in its 2007-2012 Strategic Plan it created this new campus to meet some of the needs emerging from the dynamics now operating in the region and globally. This, of course, is only one of the University’s initiatives in responding to today’s needs.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.